I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few weeks chatting with seniors and family members who are rightly concerned about the current health situation and how that is affecting retirement homes in Ottawa.

While things have certainly changed I can say with absolute confidence that retirement living right now is as strong as ever.

To be a retirement home, the premises must provide care support under the direction of a nurse and be licensed with the Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority which governs best practice for its members. Any home that is not regulated is not a true retirement home and instead is referred to as a ‘senior living establishment’ or a ‘55-plus community’. The Ministry of Health has given direction to retirement homes on policy and protocols they must adopt during the pandemic to minimize risk and ensure residents and staff are safe.

Q. If I move into a retirement home right now, am I going to catch Covid-19?
A. You are no more at risk of contracting Covid in a retirement home than you are where you currently live. In fact, because of all the added health and safety measures you are LESS likely to be exposed to the virus in a retirement home.

Anyone moving in has to be in mandatory self isolation for two weeks. This means that there is a requirement to remain in your suite for the first two weeks. You will receive all care support, all meals and snacks, all visits by staff members, but you won’t be allowed to come and go for those first 14 days. This is the same for everyone, in every retirement home. People with memory care needs who may not be able to comprehend the direction are also being supported, and Directors of Care and Executive Directors of residences are very engaged to see how they can best manage this for each individual.

For added assurance, every new person who moves into a retirement home must also have tested negative for Covid-19 in the 24 hours prior to their move in. If you’re coming from hospital, you’ll have received a test there. If you’re coming from your own home, you can arrange to have the testing done by your family doctor, or you can go to a community testing centre.

These extra measures also mean that if you’re already in a retirement home, you can be confident that any new residents are being kept isolated, have recently tested negative for Covid-19 and staff who are interacting with them will be wearing full personal protective equipment (gloves, mask and gowns).

Q. But there are so many cases!
A. Actually, there aren’t. Considering how aggressive the virus is and how many people worldwide have suffered as a result, Ottawa is doing remarkably well by comparison. Figures released by Ottawa Public Health on 24 May show that out of the 86 retirement homes in the city (from Carp to Cumberland and south to Osgoode/Kars), there have been 16 homes that have had an outbreak. It is called an outbreak even if there has only been one positive case confirmed, of a resident or a staff member. Of those 15, 10 have been given the all clear and five remain under the overview of public health.

Any home that has a positive case goes into immediate lockdown; if it is a staff member they are removed and if it is a resident they are isolated and cared for. Public health comes and tests everyone in the building and they also provide 1:1 support to the residence and its managers through doctors, nurses and an extended health team. Public health has also been visiting homes who have no outbreak to speak to Directors of Care to make sure they’re equipped and they know how to handle a case if there is one.

What might have you confused is the news you’ve been seeing about the higher number of cases and sadly deaths within Long Term Care homes. These communities are very different and are not retirement homes but it is easy to misunderstand the information. There have been 553 LTC resident cases in Ottawa, with 197 deaths, (as of 24 May 2020 OPH reporting).

Q. How will I know that staff and community support workers aren’t bringing it in from outside?
A. The virus is a new phenomenon for the world and is being studied and monitored 24/7 by scientists and virologists to ultimately find a vaccine. What is understood is that it passes from person to person and that it enters the body through the eyes, mouth or nose. While no one can be 100% certain that they have not been in contact with someone who has the virus – especially if they are not showing any symptoms – health care workers and staff of retirement homes take their responsibility to others very seriously.

There has already been a directive issued not allowing LHIN workers (those that provide the government funded personal support care) to work in more than one retirement home. This means they will not be seeing 10 people in retirement home A and then seeing a further 10 in retirement home B. Every staff member is temperature checked at the start of each shift and then at intervals throughout the day. Hand washing, hand sanitizing and wearing of PPE is mandatory and followed through. Only essential visitors are allowed in retirement homes, which means those that provide care or who are critical to the functioning of the building. Other staff members, like the sales person are working from home. The hair salons, physio clinics are also closed right now to reduce the risk of these personnel bringing something in. And, unfortunately family members are not allowed to visit their loved ones, unless it is to be with them at end of life. One family member IS however allowed to accompany and support a parent on the day they move in, as long as they are screened and wear a mask and gloves. Most, if not all the residences we partner with are allowing this.

Q. How can I move my furniture across if there’s restrictions on outside people coming in?
A. Again, most if not all residences are allowing personal furniture to be moved in, as long as it is by an actual moving company that itself is screening and following health directives (a neighbour with a van is not allowed). Each residence is deciding how they will accept personal furniture (some are asking for an evening drop off, some will take through their garage, have it sanitized and then maintenance staff will deliver to the suite). And many homes are able to offer furnished rooms for a short period (up to 2 months in some instances) so families can have a chance to sort out the movement of pieces like a bed or dresser. Respite stays are also still welcomed, which means someone can go to a retirement home for rest or recuperation, usually following a hospital stay. At the moment, the minimum stay is 21 days, up to 45 days at some communities.

Q. Why would I want to move? My house seems safer!
A. And that might be. If a potential move to a retirement home is already on your radar then waiting a few months to see how the health landscape changes or improves could be doable. But if the reasons you’re looking at alternative accommodations are still prevalent – if not more so with the restrictions you’re facing – then waiting for that move doesn’t necessarily make sense. In a retirement home you are going to have all your meals, snacks and beverages provided for you; you’re going to be far less isolated (even taking into account the need for your initial self-isolation). You’re also going to have staff at hand 24 hours a day, including a nurse should you be unwell or need any urgent assistance. And despite the Covid challenges, retirement communities are doing all they can to keep residents engaged with socially distant activities and events. They’re also organising Skype calls for family catch ups and some will allow family to visit in the car park, if 6ft distancing is respected. You should also bear in mind that the longer you wait, the less options there may be. Here at Solva, we have certainly seen an increase in moves and thus a decrease in availability.

We are making it a priority to be properly educated on Covid and its effects on senior living. We are also diligent about our regular check-ins with retirement home partners, community support services, hospital social workers and Ottawa Public Health.

If you have any questions about retirement home living, please call or email us. No question is too small or silly and starting a conversation now will most certainly help you plan for your future.

We’re at info@solvaseniorliving.ca or 613-421-6073

Caroline Inman is the principal consultant and communications manager with Solva Senior Living. Her experience caring for and supporting seniors stems 13 years and culminated in her owning her own elder care company. She is a strong advocate for being properly informed before making decisions, including always having a plan! Contact Caroline directly at caroline@solvaseniorliving.ca